In the Pixar Rule of Story #2 post, we came across the expression “unfilmables” so I thought it would be helpful to revisit the word and discuss it in more detail.

When talking about writing, there are probably two main interpretations of the word.

It could be used to identify a particular piece of work (a novel or play for example) that is considered to be impossible to film. We hear about them all the time. I’m pretty sure that CLOUD ATLAS, for example, was considered an unfilmable book, but that didn’t stop them trying; successfully. Like all writing rules just because someone says you shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you can’t.

In the context of the PIXAR post (and this discussion) it is more about elements of a screenplay that can’t be easily translated to screen. These are the writerly tricks and trinkets we may use to “flower-up” our scripts to make them more personal and more jaunty to the reader.

For example, something like, “Carrie stares at the purse her mum gave her. She loves that purse with all her heart and never lets it out of her sight, putting in her handbag every morning before she leaves the house,” isn’t easily translatable to the screen. It is unnecessary internal narrative that would work fine in a novel, but doesn’t really work in a screen play. It is expositional writing that you can’t really film without additional scenes and, essentially, it just takes up more white space.

You may also come across unfilmables in character introductions. For example, “CARRIE (20s) enters the room like a breath of fresh air, despite her anger at her father for leaving when she was just a child.” In this case, there are again unfilmable elements that are hard to show on screen. However, it does give the reader and (possibly) the actor, insight into the character they are going to play. It might not be filmable but it can help the screenplay.

Common advice is that you should avoid such devices in a screenplay. But is it true that you should NEVER use them?

Of course not!

The examples aren’t great, but they illustrate that there are always exceptions to the screenwriting rules we discover as we learn to become screenwriters. We all need to be aware of these “rules” of screenwriting, from simple formatting techniques to opinions on whether you can write “BEAT” or “WE SEE” in a screenplay. However, we should take those rules and turn them into tools that can be used to make our stories fly and voices stand out. This is a theme we will no doubt return to on this blog; a theme I first came across in an online writing course with Scott Myers – Tools, not Rules.

If writing like that comes naturally, it is part of you, part of your voice. Don’t hide it under a mountain of perceived rules that will simply restrict your flair and freedom to write naturally for you. Just be careful how you use them. Don’t throw that stuff in on every page, just because you can. Use them sparingly to showcase your work.

You can read further, insightful, discussion on unfilmables with Scott Myers at Go Into the Story.

I have seen them used in both good and bad ways, and use them sparingly myself where I feel they help the story.

Do you use “unfilmables” in your writing, or do you stick closely to perceived screenwriting rules?

If you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to post them below.


Posted on March 21, 2015, in Writing, Writing Rules and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I used to write a fair amount of unfilmables in my scripts. Then I became a square and mostly refrain from using them. And to be honest, I don’t miss them. I accept it as a stylistic constriction in mainstream screenwriting, the way metric or rhyme is in poetry. I find the struggle to convey intangibles through pure visuals stimulating. But a literary line smuggled somewhere in the script is always fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great pictures of the moon, pity it was your daughter who actually took them. Perhaps she can give you some lessons on “How to use a camera???” joke joke

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Angel – and that is the exact message with regards the rules, if they work for you and your story, go for it, just don’t overdo it. If you don’t like them, or are not comfortable using them… don’t! It’s your creation.

    I do use them, from time to time, but very sparingly. My voice doesn’t naturally come across in that “knowing” way (I don’t think) so I only feel comfortable when they really serve the story. I’ve read work from mutual friends where unfilmables work really well because they reflect the voice of the writer – and when that comes together you have the makings of a great screenplay!

    Liked by 1 person

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